Old Boyfriends & New Loves

The LA Times profile promised a return to alternative goodness – not quite greatness and glory but something worthy of $11.99 on iTunes. Jane’s Addiction were back. Perry, Dave and Stephen joined by bass player, Chris Chaney, with some crucial help in the studio from Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio.

Perry talked of an urgency, of not wasting any more time in order to “define who we are, the music that we make, the show that we produce. If we do that, we’ll set ourselves up to be where we always belonged in the world of music.”

But it’s been eight years since the band’s lackluster album, Strays, and twenty years since their original ‘farewell’ tour. Plenty of alternative rockers have appeared on the scene: bluesy, grungy, political, glam, some channeling Johnny Rotten, some looking to Iggy Pop for inspiration. What could I expect from JA now? I enjoyed the big chorus of the first single, ‘Irresistible Force’ but how would the rest of the album hold out? Have I outgrown them? Perry’s a family man now, and Dave, well, his flirtations with The Red Hot Chili Peppers, porn stars and reality TV just seemed so tawdry, so Kardashian. Do I really need them anymore? And more importantly, how would these old boyfriends compare to my new loves, The Black Keys?

In the late 80s and early 90s, Jane’s Addiction claimed the angry, reckless parts of my heart. They were metal with an edge, best played loud and in the dark. The band members weren’t just posers but real damaged goods. They told of back`stories lurid and heartbreaking, and they made music that seethed with anger, beauty and power. Dave Navarro played some of the finest guitar of the last 25 years (I kid you not – check out ‘Ocean Size’ or ‘Mountain Song’) and Eric Avery’s bass was relentless.

Harder than we look. Photo courtesy of citypages.com
They appealed to us suburban college kids who couldn’t fathom sleeping rough in a park or hustling to buy some food. When a skinny, half-naked Perry Farrell danced in front of us on the Ritual de lo Habitual tour, we entered in to his trance and flirted with his drug-fueled, candlelit freak-out. He sang ‘Nothing’s Shocking’ but actually, for us, he and his world kinda were.

But now he sings that “we’re all hustlers” (on the first single, ‘Underground’), and I wonder if he’s saying he’s not so special anymore. I suppose in the age of 24-7 reality, threesomes and needle marks aren’t such a big deal, so yeah, he’s probably right. We’re all tainted. Nothing’s truly shocking…

Which I think renders Jane’s Addiction’s music that little bit less relevant, less potent than it used to be. The soaring choruses, thick drums and hard and beautiful guitar lines are still there, and I do enjoy the album. It’s smooth and well-crafted. It’s pretty, is what it is. It’s just not as powerful or as angry as I hoped it’d be. Yeah, kind of like meeting that old boyfriend who’s balding and a little paunchy now, but comfortable in a khaki’s-and-polo-shirt kind of way.

What’s ironic is that The Black Keys look like khaki and polo shirt wearing guys but make music that sweats Robert Plant’s sex appeal and drives you on to the dance floor with the super force of guitars and drums. Outside the roadhouse, Otis Redding met Frank Black and when they jammed, El Camino was born.

I know it’s clichéd but The Black Keys sound both retro and brand new. El Camino only came out earlier this month but it’s quickly showed up on plenty of Best of 2011 lists. It really is a great, driving rock record. All guitars, all heartbreak, all the time. When the opening notes of ‘Gold On The Ceiling’ roll out and then the drums, bass and handclaps kick in, you feel yourself churning and spinning in a blender of five decades of Detroit rock and soul (though The Black Keys are really from Akron, OH). My YO sings along in the car while EO complains about our weird taste in music. (For a great live version of ‘Gold…’ go to their recent appearance on Colbert Nation.

With the help of producer, de facto third band member and all-around 2011 MVP, Danger Mouse, The Black Keys push their sound in to some surprising territory. ‘Little Black Submarines’ begins with an acoustic guitar and Dan Auerbach’s vocals but then explodes in to a mushroom cloud of Patrick Carney’s drums and an electric guitar solo that would make Rik Emmett proud. It’s a taste of heavy metal with mo’ groove, no spandex.

So how do I compare the two? The once wild and woolly Jane’s Addiction sounds slightly neutered now, while the mild-mannered Black Keys attract me with their explosive, gutsy rock. I think I could grow old with these guys…

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